They'll be remembered — or forgotten — as the No. 4 team in a league with three elite-level clubs, and the worst part is they didn't even get to the point of being eliminated by Oregon, Arizona or UCLA in Las Vegas. Instead, the Utes' closing scene of Pac-12 competition was a loss to a No. 5-seeded Cal team they had beaten by 30 points last week in Salt Lake City.
The Bears clearly were motivated Thursday. "We remembered that game," said Jabari Bird, who scored 26 points. "It was only a week ago, and we came prepared for battle and it showed."
Even so, "The biggest difference was within us," said Utah forward David Collette.
That's just like these guys, delivering something other than their best stuff, right after seemingly being cured. Just when they were trending well in early February, they were swept by Cal and Stanford on the road. After another recovery, they lost at Oregon and Oregon State. And then they responded with three wins to end the regular season and earn a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament, only to go winless in this event for the first time since coach Larry Krystkowiak's first season of 2011-12.
Krystkowiak credited Cal's hunger more than he accused his team of any overconfidence Thursday. But the outcome was "not unexplainable," he said, "when you look at how we played."
What was inexplicable is how Krystkowiak and the Utes handled a key sequence, amid their late rally. Here's the buildup to the blunder: After the comeback began gradually, Kyle Kuzma's 3-pointer made it 73-71 with 1:07 left. Then came Barefield's missed-and-made free throws, cutting Cal's lead to one point with 29.6 seconds remaining. So the shot clock was off, and the Utes obviously needed to foul — but they let Bird drive down the lane and score, while being fouled by Tyler Rawson.
Bird's free throw made it 76-72. Kuzma then hit another 3-pointer to complete his 23-point day, before Bird made two more foul shots with 5.5 seconds left and Barefield missed his tying attempt.
Gabe Bealer could have fouled Bird long before he drove, but the Utes were instructed to foul other people — if they ever got the ball. "We had a couple guys identified that we wanted to foul," Krystkowiak said.
Bird said the strategy surprised him, in a good way: "Yeah, I was expecting [Bealer] to foul, so when he didn't, I just tried to make a play going to the rim."
The shot was unnecessary and Bird's move could have backfired. But it worked, and the bonus was Rawson's foul — a questionable call itself — that resulted in a critical point.
That's how the day went for the Utes. They couldn't stop Cal's driving in the first half, which led to the Bears' offensive rebounding success. After the Utes' offensive efficiency kept the game tied (30-30) at halftime, they struggled to finish plays in the second half. Utah shot 11 of 13 on two-point attempts in the first half and then went 7 of 19 in the second half, before the late flurry. It didn't help when guard Lorenzo Bonam was poked in the eye midway through the second half, making him ineffective.
Ultimately, the Utes' rally just made the what-ifs tougher to absorb. The ending was ugly. As Barefield's shot fell short, Cal guard Sam Singer punched the ball out of the air volleyball-style and then taunted the Utes.
The unsportsmanlike scene is what the Utes (20-11) are left with after their first appearance in the new arena. They came into this tournament knowing they would have to do something extraordinary to rise above the NIT, and that's where they're headed now. But they certainly expected to make more of a lasting impression in Las Vegas, before leaving.